BOSTON — Cammi Granato, the captain of the United States women's ice hockey team, relishes one rivalry over all others.
"My favorite games are against the Canadians," she says. "People who see us play realize you don't need bodychecking [illegal in the women's game] to have an intense rivalry."
The two teams are expected to vie for the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's hockey, beginning Sunday in Nagano, Japan.
Granato played on the US team in 1990 that collected a silver medal to the Canadians' gold at the first women's world championship. The two teams have repeated this order of finish in subsequent regional and world championships. During a 13-game pre-Olympic series, they played to a near draw, with Canada prevailing seven wins to six.
Granato, the top goal scorer in Providence (R.I.) College history, is convinced that the women lacing up hockey skates in Nagano will have one thing in common.
"Everybody at this level has played with the boys," she says, crediting three brothers with paving her way.
"To have brothers who would teach me and raise my expectations of what I needed to do, that's what really helped me," she explained during a conference call in which reporters asked questions of Cammi, her oldest brother Tony, and their mother, Natalie.
The Granatos are acting as spokespersons for the AT&T Olympic US Olympic Family Program, which will provide hospitality services for the families of Americans competing at the Winter Games (Feb. 7-22).
Natalie Granato says that Tony and Cammi were kindred spirits when it came to sports, even now wearing the same jersey number (21). "They were extremely similar in their competitive drive," she says from their home outside Chicago.
Tony, who plays for the National Hockey League's San Jose Sharks, has accomplished a lot in his own hockey life.
He played on the 1988 US Olympic team, was selected to the starting lineup in the 1997 National Hockey League All-Star Game, and last season was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy as the league player who best represents perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
And where will watching his little sister in the Olympics rank?
"It will probably be my most exciting moment in hockey," he says. "The admiration I have for these girls is incredible because they are playing hockey for the love of the game and nothing else."
Tony wasn't named an Olympian himself this time, but because the NHL is taking a midseason break while selected players participate in the Olympics, he will be able to attend several of Cammi's games with other members of the Granato clan.
While most everyone anticipates a US-Canada final, Cammi is not dismissing the rest of the six-team field, which has begun to close the gap. In 1994, the US beat China 13-1. A year later, the Americans held on for a 2-1 victory. Granato is also impressed by the heart of Finland's team.
After the Olympics, she will try to find further playing opportunities, as she did recently at Concordia University in Montreal, where she enrolled as a graduate student. "I'm having too much fun and I have worked too hard to let my career end after this," she says.